Friday, June 23, 2006

The politics of Firefly and Serenity

Think of your favourite political movement, right now think of your favourite television executive producer.

See given the subject of this blog means that I'm guessing a fair number of people came up with feminism and Joss Whedon. Well guess what? You can combine the two in special fundraising screenings of Serenity for Equality Now. Go see if there's one near you. You can also combine the two by watching Joss's speech to Equality Now, where he answers the question he gets asked most often half a dozen different ways. Go watch it now (or if you're on dial-up like me - start down-loading it) - I'll wait.

I thought I'd honour these events by writing about the politics (OK I'm a geek and I have many different theories about the politics of Joss Whedon shows and I'll go into them at a moments notice).

I think the politics of the television show are quite distinct from the politics of the movie. The movie says something - and we can argue about what that is, but it's message is in the plot of the movie. The politics of the television show are less direct, they're more about the world that was created, and less about the narrative of the individual episodes.

Live Free or Die

I first got involved with activism in university when I was 19. It was 1997 and the National government was looking to corporatise university education. A whole bunch of other people got involved with me - it was new and exciting. I was young, innocent and inexperienced. I remember having a conversation about politics with a Marxist, who seemed very grown-up to me, but now I think about it he was probably only 22. Anyway we were talking about our local social democractic party of the time the Alliance* social democracy and he said something like this:

In a way we agree with the National party - the country couldn't afford free education and free health care, and all the rest of the Alliance's policies [the Alliance was NZ's social democratic party for a while there]. If the government introduced policies that radical then the capitalists would disinvest. Government's have to run the country in the interests of capital.
Only he said it a little bit more annoyingly because he was a member of the International Bolshevik Tendency. Now I'm a little bit older now, and basically agree with what he said.

What does this have to do with Firefly? Well I think the politics of Firefly are a little bit like that - I think the Firefly can sustain either a libertarian or an anti-capitalist reading relatively easy - but I'm not sure the world they portray is particularly consistent with social democracy (or liberalism - if the term means much to you).

Now obviously I prefer the anti-capitalist reading, but I'll go briefly into the libertarian reading, which I think is pretty self-explanatory. On Firefly the government is generally portrayed as the bad guy. The basic aim of the captain of the ship is to stay away from the government and stop them meddling in his life. I'm not at all surprised that libertarians can find the show appealling. I strongly suspect that Tim Minear leans towards libertarian politics, and that doesn't surprise me (Tim Minear is the show-runner of Firefly who is not my secret tv boyfriend).

There are some serious problems with the libertarian reading - most importantly because no-one in the 'verse takes private property particularly seriously.

The Materialist 'verse

I think (and I don't think this is particularly controversial) that the 'verse is a capitalist one. I also think that capitalism doesn't work for poor people in the 'verse (just like it doesn't work for poor people in the real world). We see people dying from work in the mines, because they're not safe, we see the desperation of unemployment and we see capitalists using indentured labour owning a company town. These are real world problems, caused by real world capitalism. Joss set it up this way describing it as a world where there were laser guns, but not everyone could afford them.

This is more important than it should be. Most television denies any material reality for its characters. Grace Paley said that when you're writing you should remember that all your characters have blood and money. For most TV characters money isn't a reality, they have a bigger apartment and wardrobe than someone on their salary could ever afford, and whenever the writers get bored and decide to introduce a money based plot it is ridiculously unrealistic. On Firefly money, and class were real - they affected people's lives and were the driving force in much of the plot.

This isn't particularly radical (in the real world, it's possibly quite radical on television). But I do think it makes an anti-capitalist reading consistent with the text. It'd be radical if it offered a solution, and it does - for a second - from Jaynestown (my favourite episode):
If the mudders are together on a thing, there's too many of us to be put down...
It's not quite a call to the barricades, but it's a sign that at least some of the writers of Firefly live in the same world I do.

The Alliance

That's the radical left reading and the radical right reading - it's the social democrat reading that is most problematic. The Alliance, the government in the 'verse, is not neutral - it maintains the power structures, and fights imperialist wars. Now this makes perfect sense to libertarians, because they believe that governments suck (although I've no idea what they think about imperialism, because litertarianism never made any sense to me - the only libertarian I've ever liked was Laura Ingalls Wilder). It makes sense to most left-wing radicals because we believe that the state tends to work in the interests of people with power, particularly the ruling class. It's problematics for liberals and social democrats, because at best they have to believe that the state can be neutral.

Big Damn Movie

Serenity is slightly different. Not because the state is presented any more positively - poisoning people and creating unimaginable horrors is hardly neutral. In our comments someone described it as an 'anarcho-libertarian' - and I might agree, but I don't consider that a compliment. The show has become about the small guys beating the big guys, not by building their strength through numbers, but by being smart and lucky. I enjoyed it, but it didn't ring particularly true to me.

I prefer the indirect, realistic, politics of the show, to the straight-up, fantastic, politics of the movie. Give me Jaynestown over Serenity - I think I would have preferred Serenity if it had been told over a season - I think it would probably have been less fantastic that way (or maybe I just prefer TV to movies).

Also published on Alas


  1. The money in the vault didn't belong to the government it belonged to the companies who subcontracted the security. The Lassiter belonged to a rich guy. The money in Jaynestown belonged to the owner of the company - and that's just off the top of my head

    I'm sorry I'm not sure you take a statement by an eight year old character as an indication of the entire show's politics (although since the war for independence was clearly an imperialist war I don't think saying that people don't want to be meddled with is limited to libertarians). I'd agree with you if you were to argue that Mal's politics are probably closer to libertarian than any other political view on this. But I don't think anyone on the show values private property.

    Of course South Park and Team America were written by libertarians. They're also terrible, so it's not really relevant to the argument.

  2. I'm interested to hear Laura Ingalls Wilder described as a libertarian. (I speak as a former passionate devotee of her work, or at least I was when I was 8.) She was actually against votes for women -- I don't know how this would square with libertarian beliefs. Most libertarians I've met have seemed pretty cool on one or two issues dear to my heart (e.g. drug laws), but I wouldn't trust them as far as I could throw them when it comes to abortion rights, which is why I'm not leaving my fortune to any libertarian political party.

  3. Sure, but I've come across libertarians who believe she *doesn't* own the foetus and doesn't have the right to abort. I don't find a consistent pro-choice attitude among libertarians I've known.

  4. So you don't even believe in policing? That's some serious liberatarianism.

    Either way you might make that distinction, but none of the characters do. In fact they decline to steal from the government when they learn that what they're stealing is medicine that people need.

    I don't know what their ethics are - and even if their logic is libertarian, I don't think the libertarian reading of the show is the strongest.

  5. As for Laura Ingalls Wilder it was more her daughter Rose who was the full on libertarian from what I've heard. But the books were written to coutneract the New Deal and the dangerous attacks on liberty that they represented. If you read the books with that in mind you can certainly see why and how. But it certainly wasn't the message I took from those books.

  6. Ah, Wikipedia, that well-known infallible and rigorously scholarly source of all wisdom.

    Maia, I didn't know that about the reaction to the New Deal. I will re-read Wilder with this in mind -- I've been looking for new procrastination material! :)

  7. Mike the contractors they stole the money from were doing security for the Alliance - either you think policing is a legitimate government expense or you don't, but if you do, then they were stealing money from companies that had legitimately earned that money.

    I agree the denziens of Firefly have a code (well Jayne doesn't have a code), but they don't make it clear what that code is. I doubt is only steal from the government. I suspect it's something along the lines of don't steal from poor people. But we honestly don't know.

    I agree with Sofiya, there are a lot of statements in that wikipedia article that are not substantiated in the text. Including this: "
    During the Unification War, Mal and Zoe were soldiers for The Independent Faction, who were fighting the Alliance's belief that it had the right to govern how people thought and behaved. They believed in the freedom of a person to make their own decisions, either good or bad."

  8. Anonymous6:56 am

    I don't see that there's necessarily a conflict between Serenity/Firefly and social democracy. I'm probably best described as a 'social democrat' (even though I'm American). The problem with the Alliance is that there's no single philosophy of government big enough to justly govern everyone. We're too different. The thing about people in the social democratic spectrum is that we DON'T think the government can or even should 'make people better.' We just tend to think it should protect public goods and soften the most naked economic inequalities. Also, the libertarians are in no way far right. They are the economic right. People who are both economic and social conservatives are way farther out there. They think that law should be based on the Bible (their interpretation), rather than on the effects or likely effects of such legislation. In other words, they think drug problems are a question of morality, and think it should be illegal, because otherwise the government is 'condoning it'. I think we need to treat it more like a public health issue, and treat addicts instead of locking them up and ruining their lives. (If you've ever had a drug conviction, you are ineligible for federal aid for college in the US). This is similar to differences on abortion and prostitution. They care what it looks like the government is condoning, we care about what's actually happening.